Infinity via Limit: 3 Examples of Creative Limitation

Recently for one of my math and nature projects, I made three songs that use only 4 microtonal notes—as opposed to the full octave of the 12 traditional pitches of Western music. It’s my belief that any artist worth his or her salt should be able to create something memorable with whatever resources they’ve got. I’ve never been into the fancier music gear, and there was never a guitar or a keyboard I had to have. Anything that played notes was good enough to record a song with. Once during high-school I was grounded, and my step-mother ‘confiscated’ my musical instruments. I responded by writing the names of musical notes in succession vertically along my bedroom window pane next to the taut string inside the window casing. I spent the next few days plucking that.

Here are three examples of artists who created wonderful and interesting works while limited in their creative toolset either by intent or necessity:

01. Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring

Igor StravinskyIn 1913, Igor Stravinsky finished his third ballet, “The Rite of Spring”. He limited himself creatively by not using a time signature to imagine the piece. Instead of using the familiar skeleton to hang his notes on, he used a more improvised rhythm technique. Later, in order for the piece to be performed by an orchestra, Stravinsky had to string unusual time signatures together to express the greater melodies that simply didn’t exist in metered time. At its Paris premiere, Stravinsky’s contemporary Puccini said the music—which nearly caused a riot—was “sheer cacophony”. He also noted that the audience “hissed, laughed, and… applauded”. The same piece was performed a year later and became Stravinsky’s greatest triumph.

02. Gadsby: The Book without the Letter ‘E’

Twenty-five years later in the United States, author Ernest Vincent Wright had a pretty wild idea of his own. He wrote a 50,000 word novel in English without one instance of its most frequently used letter: ‘e’. The name of the book is called Gadsby and deals with a dying town revitalized by a young group of kids. This early example of ‘constrained writing’ naturally led to some creative workarounds—not the least of which was Wright’s varied and careful handling of the frequently appearing past-tense suffix ‘-ed’. The book was not very popular at the time, but is now a favorite among linguists and rare book collectors. Gadsby is a an example of a “lipogram”, or a piece of writing that omits the use of a particular letter.

03. Matisse’s Icarus

Henri Matisse: IcarusFrench painter Henri Matisse enjoyed a successful career during the early 20th century but was partially sidelined by abdominal cancer in his autumn years. In 1941, Matisse was confined to either chair or bed, which made it virtually impossible to carry on with his regular method of sculpting or putting brush to paper. He was able to continue creating by cutting colored paper and assembling the pieces into collages—a process called ‘decoupage’. Matisse’s cut-outs were originally destined to appear on the covers of Verve, a French art magazine published by Tériade. Instead, the organization decided to include Icarus in book form with 19 other of Matisse’s cut-outs to complete the “Jazz” collection. Matisse enjoyed the name the publishers gave the collection, as it drew a correlation between the visual arts and improvised music. The Jazz collection was well received (and a large print of Icarus currently hangs on the east wall of my kitchen.)

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